When Journaling Leads to Rumination.…and What to Do about It

I had a friend who resisted journaling. Even when I shared with him that it can spur personal growth, career development, and wellbeing, he resisted. “All I know is that I feel worse after journaling,” he replied.

While I didn’t understand it at the time, I now know why his experience contradicted science. For some people, journaling can make them feel worse. Here is why.

Research shows that there are many benefits to journaling. For example, journaling 3 to 5 times has been found to improve psychological and physical wellbeing. Yet some studies have obtained contradictory results. What they find is that it is possible for self reflection to quickly become rumination when reflecting on distressing events. The problem is that rumination can easily sour one’s mood, which in turn reduces the cognitive resources needed for problem solving.

Read on to make sure that your self-reflection does not become rumination.

Ethan Kross, who recently wrote Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters and How to Harness It, provides some solutions. Whether it be the ongoing narrative in our head – also known as self talk – or journaling and actually getting our words down on paper, we want to make sure we’re doing it right. While his book offers a full 50 strategies, below are my three favorites:

  1. Use Self-Distancing Language: When journaling about a negative event or a difficult situation, change your language. Instead of using the first person (“I didn’t do my best job on that assignment”), refer to yourself in the third person (“Jane didn’t do her best job on the assignment”). Self distancing language gives us a little space from the distress that comes from self reflection of negative events. This is important because negative emotions hijack our cognitive resources making it difficult to think clearly about what to do next time.
  2. Broaden Your Perspective: You might be journaling about the one time you failed to persuade your team, but you find yourself wondering why you don’t have the persuasive skills needed for a leadership position. Negative emotions have a tendency to narrow our line of vision and this is certainly true when reflecting on difficult events. Human beings are particularly sensitive to notice the problems and failures rather than successes, so we need to adjust for this by purposefully broadening our perspective. Take time to reflect on the wider picture by purposefully reflecting on successes. Are you really bad at persuading others, or was it just this one time?
  3. Normalize Your Experience: Reminding yourself that you are human and failures or other stressful situations are a part of life. Yet we rarely share these experiences with others, which gives the false impression that we are the only ones. Kross has another linguistic suggestion for this: use the word “you.” For example, “you can persuade them some of the time, but not all of the time.” The reason this works is that we commonly use “you” when making universal statements about the human experience. This simple linguistic trick is enough to keep your focus on the bigger picture.

The bottom line is that you don’t have to avoid journaling and other forms of self reflection if you want to work through a distressing situation. Instead, just be careful to manage negative emotions that might emerge so you can maintain your mental clarity.

Published by dramymyoung

Organizational Psychologist & Professor

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